Skip to main content

Does the label really matter? Evidence that the US public continues to doubt “global warming” more than “climate change”

Abstract

Does the public doubt the existence of “global warming” more than “climate change”? While previously published research suggests that it does, others have argued that this effect either never existed or has disappeared amid broader shifts in public opinion. We draw on survey response theory to help reconcile this debate. We then analyze data from an October 2016 probability-based survey experiment (n = 1461 US adults) to test the prediction that the US public (and particularly, Republicans) continue to respond differently when asked whether global warming vs. climate change exists. Indeed, respondents who were asked about climate change responded “Yes” (definitely or somewhat) more often (85.8%) than respondents who were asked about global warming (80.9%), an effect observed for Republicans (74.4 vs. 65.5%) but not Democrats (94% in both conditions). We discuss broader implications for US public opinion and discourse in an era of significant proposed government rollbacks of climate and environmental policy.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In a recent interview, Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency who was appointed by Mr. Trump, disagreed that carbon dioxide is a “primary contributor” to global warming (Davenport 2017).

  2. 2.

    Of course, partisan evaluations have diverged on other issues too, including the economy (e.g., Enns, Kellstedt, and McAvoy 2012). Much of the survey data used in these studies are available through the iPOLL Databank maintained by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research (https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/CFIDE/cf/action/home/index.cfm).

  3. 3.

    Dunlap (2014) also found that Republicans responded similarly to global warming and climate change when both terms appeared in adjacent survey questions (as opposed to a split-ballot design). This result, however, is not as surprising because soliciting the public’s responses to both labels in the same block of survey questions likely inflates the consistency of responses by rendering cognitive associations shared by both terms highly accessible and because respondents may infer that pollsters are intentionally using the terms interchangeably (see Conrad et al. 2014; Zaller and Feldman 1992).

  4. 4.

    Leiserowitz et al. (2014) have also done important work on the potential for differential responses to global warming and climate change and have found partisan differences in open-ended responses and perceiving the issue as a problem.

  5. 5.

    Villar and Krosnick’s (2011) study offers some support for this notion, as they did not find significant differences with regard to whether Republicans and Democrats judge global warming or climate change as serious.

  6. 6.

    The non-collapsed belief responses reveal different patterns particularly for the Yes, definitely (55.4% for climate change vs. 49.2% for global warming) and No responses (14.2% for climate change vs. 19.1% for global warming). Similar percentages of Yes, somewhat responses were observed across conditions (30.4% for climate change vs. 31.7% for global warming).

  7. 7.

    We also conducted a separate identical telephone (cell and landline) survey through Cornell’s Survey Research Institute. Although we focus on the GfK survey because the analytic sample size is much larger (1,422 vs. 604), the weighted results were substantively equivalent in both surveys, with a greater proportion of respondents indicating that “climate change” is happening than “global warming.” Because of the small sample size and because the partisanship response options were different, we did not analyze the experimental manipulation in the SRI survey by partisanship.

  8. 8.

    Due to the small number of independents in the sample after leaners were coded as partisans (n = 28), we excluded these respondents from the party identification analysis.

  9. 9.

    As in the overall sample, among Republicans, the non-collapsed belief responses reveal different patterns particularly for the Yes, definitely (33.9% for climate change vs. 24.3% for global warming) and No responses (25.6% for climate change vs. 34.3% for global warming). Republicans’ Yes, somewhat responses were similar across conditions (40.5% for climate change vs. 41.3% for global warming).

  10. 10.

    The corpus of Donald Trump’s Twitter posts can be searched here: http://www.trumptwitterarchive.com/archive. A search conducted on May 3, 2017, returned a total of 106 tweets containing global warming and 38 containing climate change.

References

  1. Bolsen T, Druckman JN, Cook FL (2015) Citizens’, scientists’, and policy advisors’ beliefs about global warming. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci 658:271–295

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Burkeman O (2003) Memo exposes Bush’s new green strategy. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2003/mar/04/usnews. climatechange

  3. Chong D, Druckman JN (2007) Framing theory. Annual Rev Pol Sci 10:103–126

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Conrad FG, Schober MF, Schwarz N (2014) Pragmatic processes in survey interviewing. In: Holtgraves T (ed) Oxford handbook of language and social psychology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 420–437

  5. Cook J, Oreskes N, Doran PT, Anderegg WR, Verheggen B, Maibach EW et al (2016) Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environ Res Lett 11:048002

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Davenport C (2017) E.P.A. chief doubts consensus view of climate change. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/us/politics/epa-scott-pruitt-global-warming.html?_r=0

  7. Dunlap RE (2014) Global warming or climate change: is there a difference? Gallup. Available online at http://www.gallup.com/poll/168617/global-warming-climate-change-difference.aspx

  8. Dunlap RE, McCright AM, Yarosh JH (2016) The political divide on climate change: partisan polarization widens in the US. Environ Sci Sust Dev 58:4–23

  9. Enns PK, Kellstedt PM, McAvoy GE (2012) The consequences of partisanship in economic perceptions. Public Opin Q 76:287–310

  10. Finucane ML, Slovic P, Mertz CK, Flynn J, Satterfield TA (2000) Gender, race, and perceived risk: the ‘white male’ effect. Health Risk Soc 2:159–172

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Hamilton LC (2011) Education, politics and opinions about climate change evidence for interaction effects. Clim Chang 104:231–242

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Hardy BW, Jamieson KH (2005) Can a poll affect perception of candidate traits? Publ Opin Q 69:725–743

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. IPCC Working Group I: the scientific basis (2017) Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg1/518.htm

  14. Jang SM, Hart PS (2015) Polarized frames on “climate change” and “global warming” across countries and states: evidence from Twitter big data. Glob Environ Change 32:11–17

  15. Kahan DM, Peters E, Wittlin M, Slovic P, Ouellette LL, Braman D, Mandel G (2012) The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nat Clim Chang 2:732–735

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Krosnick JA, Holbrook AL, Visser PS (2000) The impact of the fall 1997 debate about global warming on American public opinion. Public Underst Sci 9:239–260

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Krosnick JA, Holbrook AL, Lowe L, Visser PS (2006) The origins and consequences of democratic citizens’ policy agendas: a study of popular concern about global warming. Clim Chang 77:7–43

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Krosnick JA, Presser S (2010) Question and questionnaire design. In: Marsden P, Wright J (eds) Handbook of survey research. Emerald Group, West Yorkshire, pp 263–314

  19. Leiserowitz, A., Feinberg, G., Rosenthal, S., Smith, N., Anderson, A., Roser-Renouf, C., & Maibach, E. (2014). What’s in a name? Global warming vs. climate change. Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, New Haven: CT.

  20. Lorenzoni I, Leiserowitz A, de Franca Doria M, Poortinga W, Pidgeon NF (2006) Cross-national comparisons of image associations with “global warming” and “climate change” among lay people in the United States of America and Great Britain 1. J Risk Res 9:265–281

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Lorenzoni I, Pidgeon NF (2006) Public views on climate change: European and USA perspectives. Clim Chang 77:73–95

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Maibach EW, Leiserowitz A, Roser-Renouf C, Mertz CK (2011) Identifying like-minded audiences for global warming public engagement campaigns: an audience segmentation analysis and tool development. PLoS One 6(3):e17571

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. McCright AM, Dunlap RE (2011) Cool dudes: the denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States. Glob Environ Chang 21:1163–1172

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. O’Connor RE, Bord RJ, Fisher A (1999) Risk perceptions, general environmental beliefs, and willingness to address climate change. Risk Anal 19:461–471

    Google Scholar 

  25. Palm R, Lewis GB, Feng B (2017) What causes people to change their opinion about climate change? Ann Am Assoc Geog 1–14

  26. Poortinga W, Spence A, Whitmarsh L, Capstick S, Pidgeon NF (2011) Uncertain climate: an investigation into public scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Glob Environ Chang 21:1015–1024

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Rahmstorf, S. (2004) The climate sceptics. Potsdam: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Retrieved from http://www.pikpotsdam.de/∼stefan/Publications/Other/ rahmstorf_climate_sceptics_2004.pdf

  28. Romm J (2010) Debunking the dumbest denier myth: ‘climate change’ vs. ‘global warming.’ ThinkProgress. Retrieved from https://thinkprogress.org/debunking-the-dumbest-denier-myth-climate-change-vs-global-warming-95dbb3aa65e2

  29. Schlossberg T (2016) Poll finds deep split on climate change, party allegiance is a big factor. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/05/science/climate-change-poll-pew.html?_r=0

  30. Schuldt JP (2016) Global warming versus climate change and in the influence of labeling on public perceptions. Oxford Enc Clim Change Commun. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.309

  31. Schuldt JP, Pearson AR (2016) The role of race and ethnicity in climate change polarization: evidence from a US national survey experiment. Clim Chang 136(3–4):495–505

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Schuldt JP, Konrath SH, Schwarz N (2011) “Global warming” or “climate change”? Whether the planet is warming depends on question wording. Publ Opin Q 75:115–124

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Schuldt JP, Roh S (2014) Of accessibility and applicability: how heat-related cues affect belief in “global warming” versus “climate change.”. Soc Cogn 32:217–238

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Schuldt JP, Roh S, Schwarz N (2015) Questionnaire design effects in climate change surveys implications for the partisan divide. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci 658:67–85

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Schuman H, Presser S (1996) Questions and answers in attitude surveys: experiments on question form, wording, and context. Sage, London

    Google Scholar 

  36. Schwarz N (1999) Self-reports: how the questions shape the answers. Am Psychol 54:93–105

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Schwarz N, Sudman S (eds) (1992) Context effects in social and psychological research. Springer Verlag, New York

  38. Trump Twitter Archive (2017) Retrieved from http://www.trumptwitterarchive.com/ archive/

  39. Villar A, Krosnick JA (2011) Global warming vs. climate change, taxes vs. prices: does word choice matter? Clim Chang 105:1–12

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Whitmarsh L (2008) What’s in a name? Commonalities and differences in public understanding of “climate change” and “global warming.”. Public Underst Sci 18:401–420

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Zaller J, Feldman S (1992) A simple theory of the survey response: answering questions versus revealing preferences. Am J Polit Sci 36:579–616

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jonathon P. Schuldt.

Appendix

Appendix

Table 1

Table 1 Odds ratios from logistic regression models in the overall sample and by partisanship (Republicans vs. Democrats), controlling for covariates

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schuldt, J.P., Enns, P.K. & Cavaliere, V. Does the label really matter? Evidence that the US public continues to doubt “global warming” more than “climate change”. Climatic Change 143, 271–280 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1993-1

Download citation